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Ramayana reinvented for alien times and stage

Ramayana reinvented for alien times and stage

Author: Rashmee Z. Ahmed
Publication: The Times of India
Date: April 19, 2001.

The Ramayana has come to the London stage in symbolic obeisance to a hydra-headed phenomenon the West's fascination with exotic Eastern faiths and a growing hunger within young British Hindus to develop a strong cultural identity.

The play, complete with multi-cultural, multi-religious cast, an Afro-Caribbean Ravana, Ayesha Dharkar as Sita and an English Surpanakha sporting green high heels and conical pink Madonna-like bosoms, is running to packed houses, in what its director, Sri Lankan Tamil Indu Rubasingham calls "yet another instance of this amazing ancient story speaking to a community at its time and place and in a way it can understand".

The end result is a quasi-spiritual version of London street life, an exercise the play's writer, Peter Oswald, accepts is a difficult "balance between the human and the divine".

Leading British Hindus say they are encouraged by the second theatrical attempt after Peter Brooks' Mahabharata at bringing Hinduism to a western society increasingly searching for faddish oriental solutions to life's eternal problems. Shaunaka Rishi Das, a white Irish convert and practising Hindu priest for nearly 20 years, believes the play will promote a cultural exchange that will help British Hindus forge their own identity and learn about themselves.

"We have 1.5 million Hindus here, but they have traditionally kept their heads down and gone about their business. The third generation is very British but India has a sacred place in its life. They want to know more about how to integrate without being assimilated," he said.

The statistics may be arguable and perhaps exaggerated by half-a-million, but it is true that British Hindus are increasingly drawn to making a more public statement of their faith. After half-a-century of making almost no political bid for prominence, community leaders now point with pride to Lord Navnit Dholakia, a leading Liberal Democrat peer who bears Ganesh on his coat of arms.

In response to a perceived hunger for self-knowledge, the four-year-old Oxford Centre for Vaishnav and Hindu Studies is sponsoring Britain's first Hindu Youth Festival, visualised as an attempt to give youth culture intellectual gravitas from Hindu scripture. Alongside plans for the festival is the Oxford Centre's ongoing first survey of British Hinduism through oral history.

They are not misjudging the market. Earlier this year, Channel 4 brought the Mahakumbh Mela into millions of ordinary British homes, but Hindus here complained about its billing as "the greatest show on earth" and much of its focus "on freakery".

But Das, who converted to Hinduism 22 years ago, stresses they are not looking for a market, just to help the young ones find themselves. "We are not evangelical. We are not looking for mass conversions, but The Ramayana on the London stage might help lead people to more traditional sources of the katha".

A straw poll of the largely white, middle-aged audience of the Ramayana reveals mixed feelings. "It's different," says one lady. "Is this a spiritual story, of huge significance to Indians?" asks another in bewilderment. "I was expecting a classic," complains a disappointed old gent.

For, this is definitely not Brooks' nine-hour long epic production of the Mahabharata, but a lively exercise in cultural cross-pollination. Rubasingham, who told this paper that she originally declined the project because "this was too big a story", said she ultimately felt the Ramayana could symbolise multi-cultural Britain and the confusion of Asians living here.

"I always knew the story, I never remember being told it, my brother's name is Lav, this story affects every structure of Asian life, so I decided on mixed Kathakali and western theatrical styles and east-west music," says Rubasingham.

She chose as writer Oswald, a writer-in-residence at Shakespeare's Globe, whose previous brush with Indian theatre included Shakuntala. The two decided on clowning, what Oswald calls a pseudo-Shakespearean burlesque and a thorough "integration of religion and art".

But in the attempt to make the Ramayana accessible to the West, was it necessary for Sugreev to swig beer and Ravana's son, Indrajeet, to leer at Sita, who manifestly casts off her divinity? Shaunaka Rishi Das says he is tolerant, "The West is ignorant of us, that's why they're doing this. But the fact that they are doing it at all is reason to celebrate".

Meanwhile, like carrying coal to Newcastle, there are also plans to export the British Ramayana to India.

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